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Celtic 6 Dundee United 2: Striker stokes the flames of debate over attack

THERE is only one question to ask after Celtic scored a neat half-dozen.

Sean Dillon attempts to block an effort across goal by Anthony Stokes, who scored twice
Sean Dillon attempts to block an effort across goal by Anthony Stokes, who scored twice

Who is going to score next season for the champions?

The perversity of this query is increased when it is realised that Gary Hooper, the likeliest of the forwards to depart from Glasgow in the summer, did not score in a highly- entertaining romp against an enterprising but ultimately overwhelmed Dundee United side. But the inquiry over who will form the sharp edge of Celtic next season remains. Neil Lennon, the manager of the club, can consider it at some leisure.

With Celtic likely to lap the other teams before the split, the retention of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League title now only contains intrigue over where and when it will be achieved. The Champions League adventure is also over, barring the formality of a trip to Turin.

Lennon thus will have a focus on the William Hill Scottish Cup, but will also be peering over the horizon to next term. With Hooper likely to leave Glasgow, the manager has scope to both ponder this eventuality and cater for it.

He needs at least four players in that area. Georgios Samaras, the enigma wrapped in a shampoo ad, takes one, as does the improving and potentially top-class Tony Watt. However, Lassad Nouioui and Miku have hardly made convincing cases.

Celtic would therefore have to recruit two strikers, unless Anthony Stokes, disciplined before Christmas for his attendance at the memorial for a member of the Real IRA, proves to the club that he can be an asset on the field and no liability off it.

He made an excellent case on Saturday in support of his case to stay. The 24-year-old scored twice, had to have the ball taken from him when he grabbed it to take Celtic's penalty, and drifted into positions where he should have added to his tally. He was bright, energetic and his movement was excellent.

His contract runs out at the end of the season, though Celtic have a year option the club can choose to exercise. Lennon stated again that Stokes is playing for his future. Stand-in captain Joe Ledley hopes that future is at Celtic Park.

"Stokesy is a fantastic goalscorer and he's done it every season he's been here. It's been a difficult season for him with injuries but it's good to have him back and I hope he gets a new deal," said the Welshman. "Apart from his goals, he can link up play, go short and long, and he's got fantastic movement off the ball."

There was a moment in the match when the keenness of Stokes threatened to run away with him but a command from Lennon restored order as the Irishman sought to take a penalty instead of Kris Commons. "Puff [Commons] is usually our penalty taker but Stokesy wanted off the mark and the gaffer told him to hand it back," said Ledley.

Commons despatched the award with a technical certainty that marked an impressive performance from the Scottish internationalist. He is not an orthodox striker but can score goals, particularly when used in a front three. Commons and Stokes each struck twice, with Ledley and Efe Ambrose completing Celtic's scoring.

The Nigerian bulleted in the equaliser after Stuart Armstrong gave United the lead and was cheered by the Celtic support in the wake of a poor performance against Juventus.

The display of the United defence will not be so easily forgiven by Jackie McNamara. The manager has inherited a side that seems constitutionally unable to defend. When Jon Daly missed the chance at 2-1 to equalise from a contentious penalty award, the match was swept away from United by a bristling Celtic. Fraser Forster who, almost predictably, saved the penalty, made two other excellent stops but it is sobering for United to accept that even five goals would not have brought them a point from Parkhead.

McNamara will look to restructure the United defence tactically and in terms of personnel. He will have to wait until the summer before major moves can be made to recruit defenders and by then he may have to ask himself the question of who will score goals for his team. Daly's contract runs out in May and Johnny Russell's brisk finish with the last kick of the match was an unnecessary reminder of a sharpness in front of goal that will make him the subject of interest in the summer, perhaps from the champions.

"He's a great asset," said Brian McLean, the United defender. "We managed to hold on to him through the January transfer window and we'll try to do that again during the summer. I know it's going to be difficult for the chairman but he [Russell] is a man who just wants to play football and express himself."

The choices made by Hooper and his agents will have significant consequences for Celtic. If the striker leaves, Lennon will want to invest heavily to replace him with such as Charlie Austin, the Burnley striker rated at £3m plus. But this still leaves room for Stokes. There is still a chance for him at Celtic but it is up to him to take it.

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